Steadying the ship
It would be impossible to begin with anything other than the Patriots inspiring victory over Baltimore in the car wash that was Gillette Stadium Sunday night. New England pulled off the upset by controlling the vaunted Ravens rushing attack and matching it with a more potent version of its own. Cam Newton is settling in as the game manager Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels need for the team to succeed and has now gone two games without a turnover after a dizzying stretch of miscues that short-circuited the Patriots chances during the month of October. Belichick is playing to his team's strengths, which is the offensive line and the running game behind Damien Harris.
Harris has taken hold of the lead back role and allowed Belichick to keep Sony Michel as the "break glass in case of emergency" insurance policy on IR, running with a purpose behind a solid group of blockers. Harris has power to break tackles and shown enough speed to get to the edges when needed. The Ravens were geared up to stop him Sunday night but still struggled as Harris racked up 122 yards before Baltimore finally shut him down in the fourth quarter with some blitzes and desperation. But the formula for Patriots success has been set: run the ball, make a couple of modest plays in the passing game and protect the football. In wins over the Jets and Ravens, the Patriots failed to turn the ball over and wound up with just enough to win each time. Even one hiccup may have spelled the difference, so continuing that trend will be the key to any future success. The Patriots still face an uphill climb to make the playoffs as they sit two games behind six teams vying for the three wild card spots. But Sunday's win over Baltimore likely stands as the team's best win since Super Bowl LIII and gives some belief to a group of players – led by Newton – still searching for some consistency.
QBs in focus
There's been a lot of discussion about the possibility of the Patriots getting into position to select a quarterback early in the 2021 draft. While the top-rated prospects like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are out of reach, there are a few others who may be available in the middle of the first round that have potential. Trey Lance, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones are three quarterbacks generating plenty of attention but one quarterback that hasn't is Florida's Kyle Trask. Trask won the Gators starting job in 2019 and has exploded this season. He tossed six touchdown passes Saturday night against Arkansas and is lighting up the SEC this season. He entered the season as a Day 2 prospect but some are wondering if his play is moving him into the first round. As far as the Patriots are concerned, the more quarterbacks available in Round 1 the better.
Obviously Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio won't fall in love with all of the available quarterbacks, but having more available only enhances the chances that the one they do like would be on the board. Trask spreads the ball around to a number of receivers, and he dominated the Razorbacks without his top target, tight end Kyle Pitts. Pitts is out while dealing with a concussion, but that didn't stop Trask, who threw to TDs to Pitts' replacement Keon Zipperer. Incidentally, if Belichick and Caserio can't find the quarterback they like in the first round, Pitts looks like a perfect answer at tight end.
Apologies to NBC for stealing their perfect description of Kyler Murray's heave to DeAndre Hopkins to lift the Cardinals over the visiting Buffalo Bills. Buffalo played a terrific first half in the desert before running out of gas while playing extremely shorthanded due to injuries and COVID losses. The Cardinals slowly wrestled away control of the game and led 26-23 in the fourth quarter, looking like they would earn the victory. But Josh Allen overcame some struggles and put together an epic final drive, capping it off with a tremendous touchdown throw to Stephon Diggs in the corner of the end zone. The Bills led with less than 40 seconds left and appeared to be on their way to their eighth win. But Murray used some short throws to get the ball near midfield before uncorking a Hail Mary that would have made Aaron Rodgers proud. Rolling to his left, Murray turned his shoulders and threw across his body toward the end zone, where Hopkins outfought three Bills defenders to wrestle away the victory.
It will be interesting to see how Sean McDermott's team responds after suffering through a roller coaster of emotions in the waning moments. An inspirational win turned into a crusher, and for a team with little to no championship pedigree that can lead to trouble – and the Bills will have an extra week to think about it as they hit their bye. Home games with the Chargers and 49ers await – two games Buffalo "should" win – but momentum can be a fragile thing and McDermott will need to be at his best to keep his team focused after losing in debilitating fashion. Stay tuned.
More late struggles
It's hard to explain how Matt Patricia's Lions continue to find ways to cough up large leads. No team has blown more multiple score leads than Detroit, and the Lions did so again Sunday against Washington. The inspirational Alex Smith led his team all the way back from a 21-point deficit, then rallied again with a field goal drive in the waning seconds to tie the game at 27. But this time Matthew Stafford managed to move his team into field goal range and Matt Prater nailed a 59-yarder at the gun to win it. Obviously Patricia's struggles protecting leads have been a huge storyline, and with good reason. Detroit has lost four double digit leads this season and Sunday was the first time the Lions managed to win one of those games. At 4-5 it's easy to see the inability to hold big leads have prevented Patricia's team from being in postseason position. The Lions led by 14 or more in losses to Chicago, Green Bay and New Orleans, and even just one win in those three games would have them in contention. Patricia has grown increasingly annoyed when questioned about the late-game collapses on defense, which obviously comes more directly under his jurisdiction as a defense-oriented coach. While the problems have been widespread for Detroit and not just limited to this season, there also was an extremely poor pass interference call on a failed fourth down Sunday that kept Washington's final drive to a field goal alive. The officiating in these late-game scenarios has increasingly been a problem, and the call on Detroit's Desmond Trufant was the latest example. That in no way excuses the Lions late troubles, however, and Patricia needs to figure it out quickly if he wants to keep his job.
The Dolphins continued their roll with an impressive 29-21 victory over a Chargers team that had been playing everyone tough prior to Sunday. Tua Tagovailoa enjoyed another solid game, tossing a pair of touchdowns with no picks to earn his third win in as many starts. Miami's defense continues to lead the way, holding rookie sensation Justin Herbert to just 187 yards passing. Herbert had been lighting up secondaries with 300-yard passing performances weekly before the Dolphins shut him down. At 6-3 Miami is now just a half game behind the Bills in the AFC East with games at Denver, at the Jets and against Cincinnati on tap. Brian Flores could find his team sitting at 9-3 with a Week 14 visit from Kansas City well down the road. Miami and its rookie quarterback will likely take some lumps but it's clear Flores has his team on the right track. … Speaking of coaches that have their teams playing hard, give Joe Judge some credit for his work with the Giants. New York isn't the most talented team around but Judge has his team prepared and committed in the putrid NFC East. Sunday's win over Philly puts the G-Men in contention at 3-7 believe it or not.
The Chiefs appear poised to take over the top spot but for now will stick with the lone undefeated team.
- Pittsburgh (9-0, 1st last week) – Impressive bounce back after shaky win over Cowboys, especially with Big Ben missing the practice week.
- Kansas City (8-1, 2nd last week) – Chiefs enjoyed their bye week and watched other fall all around them.
- New Orleans (7-2, 3rd last week) – Drew Brees injury warrants monitoring but the Saints continue to roll.
- Tampa Bay (7-3, unranked last week) – The Bucs back in as Seattle, Baltimore and Buffalo fall. Tampa's inconsistency is hard to figure out.
- Green Bay (7-2, unranked last week) – Speaking of unimpressive, the Packers went to the wire at home with the hapless Jags but earn a spot after everyone else lost.